If you want to see change, stop telling and involve others in the process

All soccer season, I sat on the sidelines cheering on my kids and I would find myself telling (ok, maybe yelling) “kick the ball!” or  “go to the ball!”  From the sidelines, it seemed so obvious and simple, yet they weren’t doing it. It seemed like they were tired or didn’t care…

Towards the end of soccer season, my daughter’s coach held a scrimmage for the parents and the kids. I played soccer when I was younger and I have kicked the ball around with the kids so I figured that we were going to have to take it easy on them and let them win.

Then, as we started playing, I quickly realized that I had oversimplified the skills necessary to really play and it was way more difficult being in the game to “just” kick the ball or “just” go to the ball.  In the game you have to think fast when the ball is coming at you, make decisions based on what other players are doing (or not doing), and put your skills into action in real time.

“Just” Do It

I was reminded on the soccer field is that it is much easier to tell someone to do something than it is to do it. Yet, this happens to teachers all the time when there is a new program or curriculum or some great new idea that they are told to implement by those removed from the day to day realities of a classroom. Teachers have to make decisions in real time based on the learners in their classroom while each child and each day bring unique opportunities and challenges.  Pernille Ripp, a 7th grade teacher, and author shared this frustration recently:

And yet we are told as teachers over and over to do more.  To be more.  Because the more that we are doing is not enough.  If we “just” embraced innovation and took a risk.  Finally tried something new. Then, maybe then, all kids would finally love school.

Too often, as Pernille describes, we can try and streamline and resort to telling people what to do, thinking that is straightforward and easy to “just” do it. Even if it is with the best intentions, sometimes new programs, curriculum, and expectations can add layers to the teachers’ work that impede their effectiveness with their students rather than make it better. Unrealistic expectations, without enough guidance and support, often leads to surface implementation rather than the deeper learning we are hoping for. Even worse, when teachers feedback and expertise isn’t sought in the process, we miss out on the true learning and innovation that comes from putting ideas into practice to impact learning in the classroom.

A prime example of this is what Pernille shares about her day to day practice:

I am innovating when I lesson plan and I pull my own resources, my own expertise, my tried-and-true, and find those from others and I take into account the story of every single child I teach, 100 and counting, and I try to create lessons that they will have power over, that they will be invested in, that they will remember.  And then I repeat it for the next day.

THIS is exactly the type of innovation we need in classrooms and schools today- this is learner centered innovation. Learner centered innovation isn’t just about adding new technology or shiny new things, it’s about looking to the students in the classroom, trying new strategies, new books, new questions, tapping into their passions and ideas and continually learning about what works and what doesn’t.  

Telling teachers to “just” do anything doesn’t validate what is already happening and rarely leads to meaningful change in practice.  Closing classroom doors and leaving individual teachers to figure it out on their own day in and day out will not shift classroom practices on a large scale either.  If we are really focused on what’s best for our students and if our goal is to ensure success in work, life, and citizenship, we need classrooms and schools where the educators in them can be nimble and create learning experiences that reflect the context and the resources to best meet the needs of all learners.

Coaching or Telling?

There are so many teachers like Pernille that are pushing to make shifts in their classrooms and schools. And yet, there are some that are still siloed and their doors are closed and they are continuing to do things that they have always done. We all need to be learners, we need to be willing to try new things. We need leaders to set the vision and push our thinking and we need coaches to help us hone our craft.

Well known research that I have shared before from Joyce and Showers found that coaching significantly impacted the extent to which new skills and knowledge were transferred into a teacher’s practice. Teachers who were coached practiced new strategies with greater skills and were more able to adapt strategies to their own goals and contexts than teachers who simply observed demo lessons. The teachers also retained a greater level of skills over time and were able to explain why they were using certain strategies and convey expectations to their students.  

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If we want to improve skills and knowledge and the application of them in our classrooms, we must move beyond telling people what to do and get into classrooms to help them problem solve, reflect, tweak, and learn together and collectively figure out how to move forward.

The best educators do not use just one approach or follow the curriculum to the letter; they get to know the learners and create the context and experiences to meet their needs.So whether you are a teacher, a coach, an administrator, consultant, or district leader, here are some questions to consider how you support learner-centered innovation:

  • Do your expectations and interactions positively impact learning and growth? Do your expectations and foster compliance or empowerment?  
  • Do you know what is happening in the classroom? Are you helping others to know where they are going, understand where they are, and getting to know them too and build on their strengths to move forward? Do you make the time to get into classrooms and understand what is working and what is not to inform next steps?
  • Do you provide time, resources, guidance and support teachers to collaborate and learn to improve?  

I encourage you to seek feedback and find out if your words, your practices, your expectations are helping people move forward or “just” adding one more thing. Your effectiveness as a teacher, coach, and leader is what you can bring out in someone else- to move them from their point A to their point B- not that they can implement what you tell them to.


2 Replies to “If you want to see change, stop telling and involve others in the process”

  1. Katie,
    Thanks for this post. You captured very well the challenges of how to inspire change of behavior without resorting to just telling people what to do. It’s a great reminder that good leadership is an art and science, perhaps more so an art since inspiring others has so much to do with the emotional bonds the leader is able to forge through interpersonal experiences. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Dan. Leading change is a delicate balance of push and pull and we all need each other to improve. Always appreciate your feedback.

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